Friday, January 17, 2020

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Blink and you miss it

A few years ago I made my first visit to Bury St Edmunds and, keen to see the cathedral and various other architectural monuments, I missed this pub, although I was aware that it was there. That is not totally surprising because it is one of the candidates for the title of Britain’s smallest public house. I blinked, as they say, and I missed it.

When I was writing my book Irreplaceable for Historic England in 2018, I was reminded, doing the entry for the Nottingham pub called Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, that there are several pubs that claim to be the oldest in the country. Ye Olde Trip is one. I live not far from another of them – it’s in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire. There are others, all with advocates who point to traditions, stories, apparent allusions, architectural details, and even genuine historical documents in support of their pub’s great age.

Dates can be slippery and hard to prove. With dimensions, surely, you’d think you were on safer ground. But it’s not as simple as it seems. The Nutshell’s claim seemed secure – it measures just 15 feet by 7, it’s palpably there, in the middle of town where it has been for 150 years, and it was ratified by the Guinness Book of Records. But in 2017 the John Lewis store in London’s Oxford Street opened a pub in a shed in its rooftop garden, and the shed measures just 6 x 8 feet. Then there’s Platform 3, next to the station in Claygate, that boasts standing room for three customers. Cleethorpes’s Signal Box Inn, likewise railway themed, looks scarcely larger. And there’s the Old Kent Market, which, at 11 feet x 6 feet 6 inches, is given the accolade in a more recent edition of the Guinness Book.

Few things in architecture are cut and dried. But The Nutshell is charming, small, stuffed with an eccentric collection of historical objects and memorabilia, and ready to serve local ales. A bit of English eccentricity that deserves a raised glass any time between and now and closing.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Thorpeness, Suffolk

Wood and wind

When landlord Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie and his architect F. Forbes Glennie created Thorpeness as a holiday village, they gave it a fitting share of leisure facilities. A Workmen’s Club was joined by the Kursaal, a Country Club aimed at the middle-class visitors that Glennie hoped mainly to attract. This was accompanied in turn by the Meare, a lake on which there were boats for hire, and this boathouse. The clocktower gives the boathouse a grander air than the weatherboarded barn architecture seems to merit, but also makes it easy to find – and, I suppose, easy to know when your time is up in your hired craft on the lake. Nowadays the building on the left is a café, providing welcome refreshments for those who just want to admire the view or to watch the races in the annual regatta.

Part of the purpose of the boating lake was to keep children occupied, and many of the features around the lake were given a Peter Pan theme – there’s a Crocodile Island, apparently. The effect, in spite of the threat suggested by the imaginary crocodiles, is one of gentility, and is a far cry from the opportunistic seaside tat and kiss-me-quick architecture of some of the Lincolnshire resorts that I remember from my childhood. Visiting in winter, however, I was reminded that the stiff breeze blowing towards me from the North Sea was the same familiar chilly east wind. Useful for sailing, I suppose, but I hope those picturesque wooden walls are well insulated.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Thorpeness, Suffolk

Moving building

For as long as I can remember, I’ve admired the combination of ingenuity and functionalism represented by the typical English post mill. The main body of the mill is designed as a lightweight wooden structure so that it can turn to enable the sails to catch the wind. A small circular sail, the fantail, sticks out behind and powers the mechanism that turns the mill. The base – usually known as the roundhouse – is stationary and anchored to the ground like any other conventional masonry building. This collection of mechanisms and structures can look a little ungainly, with the large wooden upper structure apparently balancing in a precarious fashion on top of the roundhouse, like a tall uprooted shed. But it works, and some post mills have turned for hundreds of years.

This one was first built in 1803 at Aldringham and was moved two miles along the road to Thorpeness in 1923. Its new job was to pump water from a well into the tall water tower that supplied the village – the tower featured in my precious post. It pumped away at Thorpeness until 1940 , when it was replaced by an engine. Repainted and preserved, the post mill must look as spick and span now as it ever has done in its two-century life. It survives as a reminder of the lasting importance of wind power in this part of the country, a power source that looks to be becoming increasingly important as the need for renewable energy grows more and more pressing.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Thorpeness, Suffolk

Cloud-capped tower

There really is nowhere quite like Thorpeness, a 1920s seaside village, all weatherboarding, timber-framing (or is it mock-timber-framing?), and red tiles, just up the Suffolk coast from Aldeburgh. The atmosphere is a curious blend of seaside suburban, merrie England, and frontier shack, and wandering around it early on a misty morning made it impossible not to have a faint sense of the unreal. And also a sense of being somewhere utterly charming and unique. One building stands out above the others – literally above, since it towers to 70 feet and seems to consist of a small house perched on a tower. This singular structure, known as the House in the Clouds, is tall enough to be visible from the beach at Aldeburgh, where visitors must scratch their heads and wonder if their rum and raisin ice-cream is laced with rather more of the hard stuff then they expected.

A folly, then? Like most follies, it is there for a purpose, and originally for a very serious one. The village needed a water tower and architect F. Forbes Glennie came up with this picturesque design, setting the 50,000 gallon tank in the ‘house’ at the top. The rest of the tower was indeed a house, and its tenants must have had the best views for miles around. Now the views are better still, because the tank was dismantled and removed in 1979, when mains water came to Thorpeness, and the resulting space made into another room. As we walked up to the tower back in November, the mist cleared, revealing the structure, veiled slightly by trees but making us smile as countless passers-by before us must have done. Merrie England indeed.

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For more on The House in the Clouds and other such structures, see the wonderfully titled book Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln, 2012), by my friend Peter Ashley.

The House in the Clouds also has its own website, here.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Orford, Suffolk

The wild side

January is likely to prove busy for me and anyway is a month often beset with the kind of weather that discourages travel and the photography of buildings. It therefore seems a good time to share an image or two from my Suffolk trip of a couple of months ago. I’m beginning with the parish church of the settlement at Orford, by the River Alde where it reaches Orford Ness and the sea. It’s a somewhat remote, quiet place now, and certainly was in the early Middle Ages, but this changed when Henry II built the great castle there in the 12th century. Along with the castle came a large church, servicing what must have been a much expanded town, with a large chancel flanked with arcades of semicircular arches.

By the 18th century the place was remote once more and the church had fallen into disrepair, with the once magnificent chancel in ruins. The Victorians hatched an ambitious plan to restore the church and the great Gothic specialist George Edmund Street was put on the case. But Street’s plans were not carried out and instead a slow, phased restoration was carried out that only ever got as far as the nave and aisles, which make a pleasant and sizeable church in their own right. The chancel was left in ruins.

And so it remains. Repairs in 1930 ensured that the ruins were stabilized. One range of arches, plus a couple of piers on the other side, remain as a reminder of past magnificence. As I have a weakness for ruins, especially those capable of sprouting a little vegetation without sustaining major damage, I rather like it this way, with the tussocky grass growing around the column bases. There’s space enough in the churchyard for a more kempt area around the main body of the church. In my book, there’s room for both the roofed building and the ruin, the neat and the unruly, the tame and the wild.

Sunday, December 22, 2019


Sun and the city
In Worcester the other day, I paused briefly as the afternoon sun went down, moved out of collision range of passing Christmas shoppers, and spent a few moments admiring the impressive array of buildings on the city’s main street. It’s a row of varied structures including a house, a couple of banks, a church, and a hotel, and positioned as it is in the centre of the city it’s surprisingly easy to walk past, dodge other pedestrians most of whom are heading resolutely for the shops, and not give any of it a second glance.

But, as regular readers will know, it’s one of the points of this blog to linger over architecture that’s most often unregarded or taken for granted. So what have we got here? First, in the foreground, my photograph shows half of an early-18th century brick building that I take to have been built as a house. This shows the decorative grace that Georgian classicism can achieve – acanthus keystones above the windows, swags below, neat quoins and cornice, and a finely detailed Ionic doorway. Next to it is a former bank, designed in the Edwardian baroque style by Charles Heathcote of Manchester in 1906. Although smaller than its neighbours, it manages to be very grand, its Portland stone frontage oozing telling details like those columns on the upper floor, the circular window above the doorway, and the iron balcony on the side wall, as if to enable the manager to look down on the hoi polloi below and calculate their credit ratings by eye before they even reach the front door.

Beyond that building is the other bank, dating to 1861–2. Its detailing is a little more restrained than that of its smaller neighbour, more Renaissance palace than baroque, as Pevsner observes. It was built for the Worcester City and County Bank as their headquarters, and this local business fittingly chose a local architect, E. W. Elmslie, who made such a mark on Malvern.

Next in line is St Nicholas Church, now, like the first bank, given over to eating and drinking. The architect of this building of the 1730s is not known but Pevsner tells us that the landmark tower is taken from a design by James Gibbs, one he did but rejected for the church of St Mary Le Strand in London. Its recessed stages culminate in an octagonal cupola with a delicate circular columned lantern at the top. At ground level this striking tower is set off by tall Doric pilasters and a pediment and the whole thing is a grand climax to this part of the street. Its stone catches the sun beautifully too, as it did on the cold winter’s afternoon when I took the photograph.

Visible beyond the church is part of a brick building, also warmed by the sun and partly striped with pale Doulton terracotta. This is a long block, originally housing the Hop Market and Commercial Hotel, built in two stages between 1899 and 1907. The visible end is the later part of the structure and has a striking open lantern topped with another small dome on the street corner, a colourful counterpart to the tower of St Nicholas.

Each of these buildings provides much to take in for anyone with the time to stand and stare. But even the casual passer-by can appreciate how well they work together: a coming together of periods, building materials, and styles that both enlivens a city street and gives it a sense of grandeur. It’s one of those bits of a provincial city not at all where time has stood still but where something of the quality attainable by local architects and builders has been preserved. We should be grateful for that.

Saturday, December 14, 2019


The room now standing on Platform 2

The Resident Wise Woman tells me that in her youth, taking the train home to the Cotswolds from Oxford, she would hear the guard on Oxford station announce her train: ‘Calling at Charlbury, Kingham, Moreton-in-Marsh, Evesham (Capital of the Vale), Worcester Shrub Hill, and Worcester Foregate Street’.* And so it was that the litany of stations on the ‘Cotswold Line’ traced the train’s journey across the hills, down to the Vale of Evesham and on towards the River Severn at Worcester. And being a hill person, the Resident Wise Woman knew that, as she stepped up from the windy platform on to the chugging diesel multiple unit, she’d soon be on her home turf.

Worcester Shrub Hill, back then, was just a name to her and to me too. So we didn’t know that this station, perched high among factories on the edge of the city centre, housed a rare and unexpected bit of Victorian luxury. In the 19th century, it was not unusual for railway stations to have a ladies’ waiting room where female travellers could sit in comfort and safety before their train arrived. And the lucky ladies who travelled from Worcester Shrub Hill station could wait in the magnificent setting of this room on platform 2. Built in c.1864, the ladies’ waiting room is clad on the outside in glorious majolica tiles made by Maw & Company of Broseley (originally the firm was based in Worcester). The rich red columns and arches surrounding them are part of the room’s cast-iron facade, made by the Vulcan Iron Works of Worcester. The overall effect – especially since the waiting room was restored about ten years ago – is one of polychromatic magnificence outside, clean pale walls inside.

No one knows the full story of this structure. No comparable waiting room, with iron walls and tiled facade, has survived. It seems to have been a one-off, and an informative notice on the station speculates that it may have been built for exhibition purposes, to show what could be done with the most up-to-date Victorian materials. The mid-19th century, after all, was a golden age of ironworking, with foundries supplying all kinds of building materials, from enormous columns and beams for giant train sheds to delicate shop fronts. And tiles were becoming increasingly popular for facades – soon, there would be tiled shops, tiled pubs, even office blocks with ceramic cladding. Maw’s were pioneers of using these brightly coloured tiles for architectural use.

The stylistic inspiration is a typically Victorian hotch-potch. Some of the ornament looks Islamic, some Classical, some medieval. But the decoration does hang together visually, while also giving travellers – and potential clients – a sense of what can be achieved with these materials. For waiting passengers, the room is more than fit fo purpose, and must raise, at the very least, an appreciative smile.

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* Evesham, by the way, is pronounced by local people as something like ‘EEV-uh-shum’, with three syllables, and this is what I hear in my mind’s ear when I remember this story.